‘Good Night, Mrs. Calabash . . .’

Being unsure which era to select this morning for a bit of chart digging, I began shuffling years in my head (and then looking to see how recently I’d visited those years). It had been a while since I’d tackled anything from the 1950s, so I started with the Billboard Hot 100 from September 21, 1959, fifty-two years ago tomorrow.

As the computer searched for that file, I wandered to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, thinking: What do I recall or know about mid-September 1959? Well, I was in first grade, and it was about that time that Miss Rodeman had to be wondering how to engage a daydreaming boy who could already read at about a third-grade level.

A pretty slender thread, I thought, as I sat down and looked at that Hot 100. Well, there doesn’t always have to be a story. A vague link to a recent post is sometimes enough. And that’s what started our digging today, because the No. 1 record in Billboard on September 21, 1959, was “Sleepwalk,” which was the Saturday Single the last time I popped into the Echoes In The Wind studios.

So it seemed like a fine idea to stay right there and see what was lurking in the lower portions of the Hot 100 during one of the two weeks that Santo & Johnny’s instrumental topped the chart. Then, one of those records and a YouTube clip caught my attention, and that’s all we’re going to dig into this morning in kind of a disjointed, attention-shifting manner.

Between August 1957 and May 1958, Jimmie Rodgers had been about as hot as a recording artist not named Elvis Presley could be: “Honeycomb” was No. 1 on the pop chart for four weeks, No. 1 on the R&B chart for two weeks and went to No. 7 on the country chart. “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” went to No. 3 on the pop chart, No. 8 on the R&B chart and No. 6 on the country chart. “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling In Love Again” went to No. 7 on the pop chart, No. 19 on the R&B chart and No. 5 on the country chart. “Secretly” b/w “Make Me A Miracle” went to No. 3 on the pop chart, No. 7 on the R&B chart and No. 5 on the country chart. And “Are You Really Mine” went to No. 10 on the pop chart and to No. 13 on the country chart.

The more I re-read that preceding paragraph, the more astounding that nine-month sequence seems. And Jimmie Rodgers seems pretty much forgotten these days.

Anyway, by the time September of 1959 rolled around, Rodgers had tumbled some. Nothing he’d released since the previous August had hit the country or R&B Top 40s, and although he’d hit the pop Top 40 with a few records – “Bimbombey” had done the best, going to No. 11 – the general trend was downward. His September 1959 single, “Tucumcari” – featuring a pretty generic lyric of love lost and won over what sounds like a Bo Diddley beat – didn’t change that, peaking at No. 32. But it did provide a pretty cool television clip for those intrigued by American pop culture before rock ’n’ roll.

The clip, according to information harvested from tv.com and the Internet Archive, came from a December 6, 1959, episode of NBC’s series of specials titled Sunday Showcase. Besides Rodgers, those joining Durante during the show were Jane Powell, Ray Bolger and Eddie Hodges. (The special was televised in color, but only a black and white kinescope survives.)

I actually recall seeing Jimmy Durante on television more than once around that time, possibly even during this show. As I wrote in 2007, when Ian Thomas’ tune “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash” popped up during a random Baker’s Dozen:

“The title [of Thomas’ song] comes from a phrase used by Jimmy Durante (1893-1980), a singer, comedian and actor whose career began in vaudeville and continued through numerous radio and television shows and movies. Durante invariably closed his radio and television performances with the phrase, ‘Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.’ He never explained who Mrs. Calabash was, and – having seen Durante on some television shows as a young child – I always thought that was kind of neat and maybe even poignant.”

As it happens, Durante did explain his exit line in 1966, according to Wikipedia. On NBC’s Monitor, Durante revealed that the line was a tribute to his first wife, Jeanne, who died in 1943: “While driving across the country, they stopped in a small town called Calabash, which name she had loved. ‘Mrs. Calabash’ became his pet name for her, and he signed off his radio program with ‘Good night, Mrs. Calabash.’ He added ‘wherever you are’ after the first year.”

Here’s Durante closing that Sunday Showcase from December of 1959:

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5 Responses to “‘Good Night, Mrs. Calabash . . .’”

  1. I’m a bit young to remember Durante, but I was familiar with his closing phrase – I think the familiarity came from hearing my pop say it. Neat story on its significance.

  2. porky says:

    Regarding Jimmie Rodgers: For his entire career poor guy has had to distinguish between himself and the other Jimmie Rodgers, you know, the inventor of modern country music. If I were his manager I would have suggested a different name…..

    Coupla other things about the Honeycomb man. He suffered a mysterious assault in LA in the late sixties. The more I thought about it I figured it had to do with him leaving Roulette Records for A&M (see Tommy James’ book) but I’ve never really heard the circumstances.

    And when I worked at a PBS affiliate he was on an oldies show and arrived with some kind of dysphonia; he lost his voice. Here he was trying to sing “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and nothing was coming out. On that show he announced he was opening a theater in Branson, I guess so people could come SEE him (and not hear him…..). That was some blow to the head.

  3. Yah Shure says:

    The Shure kids dug Mr. Rodgers enough to add “Honeycomb,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Are You Really Mine”/”The Wizard” to their fledgling collection of 45s. Any name confusion with The Singing Brakeman would have been completely lost on us at the time. Only one of them was getting airtime on Wonderful WeeGee.

    @Porky: I’m not sure what effect Jimmie’s signing with A&M would have had on Roulette, since he’d already completed a five-year stint with Dot in the interim. I saw him on a different PBS oldies show; had he not been identified as Jimmie Rodgers, I’d have never recognized him. He had to lip-sync his way through “Honeycomb,” the sole canned performance on an otherwise-live program.

  4. porky says:

    yah shure
    Thanks for filling in the blank. I had forgotten about/never knew about his signing with Dot. I think my thought process was “former Roulette artist- mystery assault” and just figured it was part of Roulette’s way of doing “business.”

    Holy moley, Durante was great. I laughed more during his part on the above clip then I have at anything on teevee in God knows how many years.

  5. […] writing about Jimmy Durante about eight weeks ago, I referred to Canadian performer Ian Thomas and his 1976 tune “Goodnight, […]

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